“Oh, you know Harold. All the plays are the same: Menace in a room!”
John Calder, the pioneering independent publisher, repeated what the best-known of his authors said with affectionate wit about the manuscript which another former Calderbooks writer had sent him for criticism. Samuel Beckett was twitting Harold Pinter over his stock-in-trade, metaphysical chamber plays, written a bit like a contemporary—and English—Strindberg, with dialogue syncopated by Beckett’s brand of tangible pauses and silences.
While it’s true that the shadows that creep into the pauses provide a vague, menacing sense of dread (Who are these people, really? What do they really mean?), what’s left out of the usual equation that types Pinter’s plays is the strange, loopy hilarity that builds up—or explodes—from the exchanges, Strindbergian monologues (when another’s listening) and occasional soliloquies. Pinter constructs them for his characters out of what sometimes sound like disjointed banalities from several overlapping, mutually oblivious conversations. (Calder says Pinter spent his apprenticeship eavesdropping in tearooms, itself a banal situation worthy of one of his characters in one of his rooms in one of his plays.)
In Old Times, which TheatreFIRST is producing at the Gaia Center, on Allston Way off Shattuck, the situation is the simplest—and most piquant. Deeley and Kate (Peter Callender and Julia McNeal) wait in their converted farmhouse home for the arrival, from Italy, of Anna (Zehra Berkman), Kate’s old friend—her best, her only friend. (“If you have one of anything, you can’t say the best.” “Incomparable!”)
The Q & A, the gentle domestic inquisition that goes on between husband and wife, one languorous, the other puzzled, is broken by the immediacy of sparkling, ebullient Anna, pouring out images of the past, of their youth together. The three dance verbally, just missing the toes. “Yes, it’s quite silent here, normally. You can hear the sea, sometimes, if you listen, carefully.”
There are games, a certain amount of joshing and light provocation. And the monologues—soliloquies, even. In the pauses, it’s not the sea, but the unfulfilled desires and hesitancies of the present that flow in, almost audible, between reminiscences.
They tear off a popular song or two out of that past. Anna warbles “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” All kinds of meaning is inflected in these snatches of melody, drifting away into nonmeaning. “They don’t make them like that anymore,” Deeley agrees with himself. Kate is more and more diffident, though roused to smiles by Anna, sidelong glances of irritation by Deeley’s joking. “My head is quite thick. I have it on.” Her eyes are pools, taking it all in, seeming happy, then anxious. Anna’s eyes are vivacious, ever-expectant. And Deeley is masculine, dynamic ... but what’s his trajectory? “I’d say you eat very well up there on those cliffs ... I know Sicily, just slightly, just slightly.”
Anna goes over their past. Kate assents, vaguely: “I was interested in the arts, but I can’t remember now which ones they were.”
The audience laughs at these half-familiar absurdities. And the pauses, the shadows grow longer in the room, like unstated, unanswered questions, opening up oblique, clashing perspectives like a Mannerist painting.
(In ancient atomic theory—which already sounds oxymoronic—the random swerve of a particle in a hail of atoms, “Clinamen,” is the element of spontaneity which makes everything happen; the incalculable. The swerves, to left or right, in Pinter’s stream of conversational and expository verbiage, merely emphasize the emptiness of the center. The phrases are either pumped up, overwrought, or flat, recited. To pursue the analogy into modern physics, Pinter’s world, reflected in this room, isn’t Einsteinian relativity, but loaded with quanta, with entropy constantly lurking in the wings.)
Then, in a shift, transference in the midst of ambiguity, Deeley’s sure he knew Anna back when. Meanwhile, Kate’s in the bath. Anna isn’t sure. Not now. The funny, constantly changing chatter dies down to something inferential, almost elegaic at times. The loss of the past? Its rebirth in wishful thinking and seemingly idle talk, altering the present? The seriousness hovering throughout strikes, a deep chord, yet jangled: “It was me. It was my skirt. I remember your look. Very well.”
Susannah Martin—and the designers (Dale Altvater, Chris Houton, Rebecca Redmond, Leah McKibbon, Jennifer Stukey)—do well by Old Times, balancing movement and stasis, the sally and the pose, finding a stylization that’s not the empty, guilty inactivity too many productions of Pinter bottom out in. She’s done well by TheatreFIRST, as have her actors—Peter Callender, one of the distinctive presences and voices in the Bay Area; Julia McNeal, who shows both poise and vulnerability; and Zehra Berkman, in perhaps her best, and most challenging, appearance to date. They’re up to the challenge of Pinter’s seeming randomness, that proves to be a non-Euclidean geometry of the stage, proving Aristotle’s old saw, “Drama is the most rational kind of poetry.”
Clive Chafer, co-founder of TheatreFIRST, who produced Old Times, opened the show by introducing Michael Storm, longtime local actor, as the troupe’s new artistic director—and Storm announced that TheatreFIRST is hoping to secure a new home in Oakland for its 16th year, where (at Mills College, then in Old Oakland) it was that city’s only resident theater company.
8 pm Wednesday-Saturday through April 18 at the Gaia Arts Center, 2120 Allston Way. $23-28 (half-price for those under the age of 25). 436-5085. www.theatrefirst.com.